A chap named Glenn Westreich sent this letter to Autoextremist.com; it's overflowing with food for thought, enough to justify reprinting it here.

As any American who's willing to be even halfway honest with himself will acknowledge, the vast majority of the crap that we work the world's longest hours to obtain is only necessary because skilled advertising and marketing professionals have convinced us that we "gotta have it." There's nothing wrong with the auto industry pushing what will make it as much money as possible, but let's not pretend that what's good for GM is good for the country. Someone's gotta push back if we don't want to live in the set from Terminator 3. The pro-car/anti-car dichotomy is tired and irrelevant. As the driver of a [Porsche] 911 and a [BMW] 5-series, I want to drive as fast as possible on scenic roads under blue skies, and I don't want my kids drafted to maintain the security of the oil supply. "Detroit" may take care of the vehicles, but someone else is going to look after the rest. So thank God for the Sierra Club et al. And when the hell are we gonna get some decent autobahns in the good old US of A?

Of course, the French, who work some of the shortest hours on earth, buy lots of crap also, but then they have all that extra vacation time to enjoy it. And while we have some seriously pricey vehicles, it's not entirely the fault of grafted-on glitz: modern-day powertrains are infinitely more complicated than their forebears — the new breed of continuously-variable transmissions almost literally so — and the payback is better fuel economy and/or more power and/or lower emissions, all of which qualify as legitimate automotive desiderata. On the other hand, I don't have a DVD player in my car, and don't particularly want one.

And while the Sierra Club lately has been downright hostile to the automobile, it seems fairly obvious to me that had there not been pressure from the government, the sort of pressure that groups like the Sierra Club brought for years, we'd have two or three hundred ozone alerts every year instead of two or three, and secondhand auto exhaust would be damned even more vociferously than secondhand cigarette smoke. Where the environmentalists went awry was in their insistence that the standards be ratcheted up continuously, whether the price tag was justified or not. Low emissions are just like high speeds: the determining factor is always going to be how much money you're willing to spend. Most any car can do 105 or so right off the lot, but if you want 155, it's going to cost you. (Note that this has nothing to do with legal issues, except peripherally; if your car is artificially limited to 125 mph, it's probably because the tires are rated for 130 or so.)

As for "decent autobahns," well, road construction can't possibly keep up with increasing population unless the government decides to seal the borders — not a likely prospect — and improving the existing network is exactly the sort of thing that brings those anti-car folks out of the woodwork. "You put an extra two lanes here, and you'll double the traffic," they complain. Better we should sit snarled in gridlock, getting zero miles per gallon, than give any more precious real estate to those wicked machines. I find this sort of thinking utterly absurd. Yes, the supply of fossil fuels is on the wane; but while there eventually will be replacements for gasoline and diesel, there will never be a replacement for time lost.

Some people envision a car-free future. It's not going to happen, at least in the US; we're an ornery bunch, and we're not about to accept the dictates of central planners who want to tell us where to live and how to get to work. The automobile indeed exacts a price, but it also pays a substantial dividend: balancing that equation is the proper goal of transportation policy. We can drive on scenic roads under blue skies. I certainly intend to, for as long as I possibly can.

The Vent

18 October 2003

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